The author who philosophized about the open road
Robert Pirsig 1928–2017
In 1968, Robert Pirsig sent a sample of his dense, meandering first novel, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to 122 publishers. Only one, William Morrow, expressed an interest. But Pirsig’s editor there warned him that the “brilliant” book would likely flop. He was wrong. Zen—which was based on a motorcycle trip Pirsig took with his 12-year-old son, Chris—sold 50,000 copies in three months and more than 5 million in the years since. The book dove into examinations of Eastern and Western philosophy, the relationship between man and machine, and the author’s own battle with schizophrenia.
Born in Minneapolis, the young Pirsig was highly intelligent— he had an IQ of 170—and entered the University of Minnesota at 15, said The New York Times. Hampered by a stammer and a short attention span, he flunked out at 17 and enlisted in the Army. Stationed in South Korea, he visited Japan on leave and became fascinated with Zen Buddhism; he would remain an adherent for the rest of his life. After returning to Minnesota, he went back to college, and was teaching rhetoric at the University of Illinois–Chicago in 1962 when he suffered a mental collapse. He began writing Zen partly as “an effort to make peace with himself after two years of hospital treatments, including electric shock therapy, and the turmoil that he and his wife and children suffered.”
“Pirsig’s response to his unexpected success was to step away from it,” said the Associated Press. He mostly avoided interviews, and took 17 years to complete Zen’s sequel, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals. “It’s not good to talk about Zen,” Pirsig explained in 2006, “because Zen is nothingness.”